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Why Richard Corrigan is turning vegetarian

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Richard Corrigan

Richard Corrigan

Neven Maguire

Neven Maguire

Gabriel Byrne and his wife outside Blazing Salads in Dublin

Gabriel Byrne and his wife outside Blazing Salads in Dublin

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Richard Corrigan

Celebrity chef Richard Corrigan is considering opening a new vegetarian restaurant in Dublin using produce from his 100-acre estate in Co Cavan. The gardens of Corrigan's Park Hotel in Virginia are already supplying vegetables to the chef's London restaurants: Corrigan's Mayfair, Bentley's Oyster Bar and Bentley's Sea Grill in Harrods.

Given that the Meath man is synonymous with high-end establishments, it's safe to assume that if he does decide to embark on another Dublin restaurant venture (his first was the ill-fated Bentley's which opened in 2008, located in what is now Cliff Townhouse on St. Stephen's Green), Corrigan won't be going head to head with Cornucopia, Blazing Salads and Govinda's, the best known of the capital's few vegetarian restaurants.

All are deservedly popular, and serve wholesome and nourishing vegetarian food that won't break the bank. In Cork, Denis Cotter's highly regarded Cafe Paradiso is where Irish vegetarians go for a gourmet experience. But none of these restaurants could be said to have scaled the heights of the very sophisticated vegetarian and plant-based food that exists in other capital cities around the world.

Dublin's vegetarians will be in for a treat if Corrigan elects to go the fine-dining route and it will be interesting to see whether he opts for a full-blown vegetarian restaurant, or for a less restrictive offering that showcases the vegetables of which he is so proud without limiting himself to cooking without any fish, game or meat at all. This is, after all, the man who has included squirrel on the menu of Bentley's Oyster Bar in London.

Alain Passard of L'Arpege in Paris is seen as being at the forefront of a new type of vegetable-focused - as opposed to vegetarian - cooking, which places vegetables firmly centre stage on the plate, rather than relegating them to the status of a garnish.

In 2001, he banished red meat from his three MIchelin star restaurant, and dedicated himself to cooking with vegetables supplied exclusively from his own organic farms in three different regions.

Passard believes that the differing soil types of each farm are particularly suited to growing specific crops, so carrots come from one farm while artichokes come from another and beetroot from yet another. This concept of terroir - whereby the make-up of the soil influences the flavour of the food grown on it - is more usually associated with wine-making, but Passard applies it to his vegetables and produces food of such exquisite artistry and delicacy that he can charge €340 a head for lunch. And that's before wine. Those who have been lucky enough to experience a meal at L'Arpege say that it is worth every cent.

L'Arpege is not a vegetarian restaurant, in that the menu features fish and poultry. But there is a vegetarian tasting menu, which costs a mere €270.

In London, many fine-dining restaurants offer a vegetarian tasting menu. Gauthier in Soho is considered one of the best, and its 8 course lunch includes dishes such as Isle of White Tomato, Lemon Balm & Tofu, Chervil & Balsamic Reduction.

At the Michelin-starred Texture, Icelandic chef Agnar Sverrisson serves a vegetarian tasting menu that is is so highly thought of that Neven Maguire is planning to work there for a week on an unpaid stage next year, to see what tips he can pick up. Maguire's own MacNean House in Blacklion, Co Cavan is one of the few restaurants in Ireland to have a vegetarian tasting menu always available.

The vogue for foraging made fashionable by Rene Redzepi's Noma in Copenhagen has resulted in more unusual wild plants, fruits and vegetables cropping up on restaurant menus around Ireland. But not all Irish restaurants cater well for vegetarians.

"If I see another menu where the only vegetarian starter is a beetroot and goat's cheese salad, and the only main course is a pasta with roasted vegetables or some kind of spinach and filo pastry concoction," says one vegetarian, "then I think I will scream. Sometimes I look at the menu of the place that I'm supposed to be going out for dinner and decide that I just don't want to spend the money on food that I can make better at home."

The sustainability and health arguments for eating less meat and more vegetables are unassailable, and there is a growing trend away from the big lump of animal protein in the middle of the plate with vegetables a mere afterthought on the side.

Stephen Toman of Ox in Belfast - one of the most exciting restaurant openings in Ireland in recent years - trained under both Alain Passard, and Pascal Barbot of L'Astrance in Paris. "I learned to place as much emphasis on the vegetables as on the meat or fish," he says. "I always got more excited about the vegetables, to be honest. At Ox, no one thing is to the forefront, and each element of a dish is given equal emphasis. One dish that I love is confit shallots that I cook for four hours very slowly with lots of herbs until they are really caramelised and then garnish with crisp chicken skin."

Mickael Viljanen of The Greenhouse and Graham Neville of Restaurant 41, both in Dublin, are two leading chefs whose menus showcase high quality vegetables treated inventively. Their names come up whenever there is talk of whether there will be more Michelin stars awarded in the capital later this month when the 2015 stars are announced. Neville's cooking has the benefit of the restaurant's own organic vegetable garden in Killiney, which grows to order for the kitchen at Restaurant 41.

Of course, not all vegetarian restaurants are about fine-dining, just as they are not all about lentils and tofu. In New York, one of the city's trendiest restaurants is Dirt Candy - named for the process by which soil is turned into vegetables by sunlight - in the East Village, which is temporarily closed pending moving to new premises in November.

"Anyone can cook a hamburger," declares the restaurant's website, "leave the vegetables to the professionals."

Chef Amanda Cohen isn't a vegetarian herself, but her restaurant serves only vegetarian food. Her dishes concentrate on single vegetable flavours, delivering the most tomato-y tomato (tomato cake with smoked feta, tomato leather, herb purée is one such dish), and the most intense mushroom flavours imaginable. Kimchi donuts are one of her biggest sellers.

Can Irish vegetarians look forward to similar delights from Richard Corrigan if his vegetarian plans go ahead?

Irish Independent